The title ‘Old Stone’ is a play on the English translation of the Mandarin name Shi Lao, a taxi driver in a ‘third tier’ city in Eastern China. Impressively played by Gang Chen, Shi is the unfortunate man caught up in the scandal of road accidents in contemporary China. When a drunk passenger pulls his arm and causes him to knock over a motor-cyclist, Shi foolishly forgets about the ‘proper procedures’ and takes the injured man to hospital where he undergoes emergency surgery and then falls into a coma. Shi then finds himself liable for all the hospital bills. The taxi company’s insurers won’t pay out because Shi moved the injured man (and therefore what caused his subsequent condition cannot be determined). The police won’t release Shi’s taxi or an accident report.
The sensible course for Shi would be to tell the man’s family that he has no money. As soon as Shi’s wife realises that he is paying hospital bills ever day, she closes their joint account and distances herself from him (she runs a children’s nursery). I won’t spoil the narrative further but clearly this situation can’t go on. Gradually Shi is moved to take drastic action. In reality, those who cause motor accidents in China are sometimes driven to running over the victims again and fleeing. The financial penalty for causing death on the road is less than the cost of paying insurance bills. Old Stone will eventually become a form of film noir in which Shi is the doomed man. As his name implies, Shi is stubborn and obstinate in maintaining his responsibility – he remains true to a collectivist spirit which has been lost in China’s headlong rush into ‘modernity’. Eventually however he is going to be forced into desperate measures.
Writer-director Johnny Ma left Shanghai for Canada aged 10 and returned to work in New York and Shanghai after graduating in 2010 from Columbia. Old Stone was made by a mixed Chinese-Canadian crew and lensed by Leung Ming-Kai from Hong Kong on location in China. At a concise 80 minutes this is a tightly edited and very effective slice of social realism morphing into a film noir crime story. It is remarkable as a first feature. I was reminded of both a Fifth Generation film like The Story of Qui Ju (Zhang Yimou, 1992) and a Sixth Generation film like Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001). Both these films take a simple premise in which a working-class character seeks some form of justice in the face of bureaucracy and a changing society and, as the title of the second implies, they draw inspiration (directly or indirectly) from neo-realism and films like Bicycle Thieves (Italy 1948). Neo-realism also offers the possibility of melodrama and the noirish ending of Old Stone reminded me of a tragic sequence in Rocco and His Brothers (Italy-France 1960). In North America, the legal problems around car accidents might lead to the arrival of ambulance-chasing unscrupulous lawyers and in Carancho (Argentina 2010) Pablo Trapero explores similar forms of criminality around car crashes in Argentina. This is a universal issue effectively used in this new form of independent cinema in China (i.e. ‘new’ in the sense of the mixed crew and the tighter edit).
I feel I must also say something about the look of Old Stone. When the film began I struggled for a moment when plunged into the middle of a street scene. It struck me that some films seem made for a smaller screen. At times the image looked very grainy when seen close on the large Vue screen. I wondered if it had been shot on 16mm, or perhaps post-produced to give that effect. Either way it enhanced the sense of the neo-realist approach. By contrast Ma also offered us lush shots of treetops blowing in the wind, seemingly as abstract images but later revealed as associated with the film’s finale. Again these images struck me as reminders, first of the start of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (no connection I could spot, except that they are both enigmatic) and, more directly, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) – a film mixing social and political commentary with a crime investigation by a disorganised and corrupt police team.
Old Stone has impressed at various festivals with Nominations and Prizes. It will definitely be released in North America and I recommend it. Here’s a good trailer.
Mercenaire is the first fiction feature by writer-director Sacha Wolff. While it isn’t anything very unusual in terms of narrative structure or presentation, it scores heavily in introducing a new world for many filmgoers. This is a family drama and sports drama set in the context of post-colonial/neo-colonial French society. The central character Soane is an 18 year-old living in the Wallis Islands, an ‘overseas collectivity’ of France often considered to be part of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. One day he is spotted playing rugby (union) by ‘Abraham’, an agent who plans to ‘sell’ him to a French semi-pro rugby team and thence to take 10% of what he earns. Soane isn’t sure about this arrangement but he needs to escape from his abusive father and he duly sets off for France. But when he arrives the French ‘collecting’ club decide he is too small (though to most of us, like many players from the islands, he seems like a colossus). All Soane can do is to seek out a cousin and join a more desperate club who pay him peanuts but also find him a part-time job. Now he has his father and Abraham (who paid for his airline ticket) as enemies while he struggles to make a new life. How will it all be resolved?
The two generic repertoires provide the narrative with some familiar elements, but there is enough different/unusual material to make this a worthwhile watch and the central performance by Toki Pilioko, a genuine Wallis Islander, is a standout. As the director points out in a Cineuropa interview, most people in France have little or no knowledge of New Caledonia. Soane is therefore treated as an immigrant and his teammates assume he is a Maori and call him an ‘All Black’ (a New Zealand international rugby player). Because of French colonial policy, New Caledonia is part of Metropolitan France and Soane speaks French. He does find himself in a multinational team however. One of the pros is a 35 year-old Georgian, forced to keep playing in the fourth tier (?) of French rugby in order to send money home. These ‘imports’ are treated very badly – paid little and forced to take illegal supplements to add weight and muscle. In a sense they are treated like cattle, similarly pumped with drugs. One ironic consequence of bringing in islanders to act as beefy props is that Soane appreciates one of the local young women who hangs round the team. She sees herself as a ‘fatty’, but Soane thinks she’s beautiful.
I think the family drama is there to broaden the appeal of the sports drama. It is interesting as a narrative but I would have liked a bit more about semi-pro rugby as a business and a culture. The hot bed for rugby in France is the South-West and that’s where the film seems to be set. There is also a semi-pro rugby league structure in the region and I wonder whether this has the same problems with exploitation of islanders. Rugby league in the UK has recruited players from the islands (Fiji, Samoa, Tonga) and I don’t know if they are subject to the same kinds of racist colonialist attitudes. Most Pacific Islanders join teams in Australia or New Zealand and that is another story, beyond my knowledge. Sacha Wolff in his interview says he doesn’t know any other rugby films. Someone should introduce him to This Sporting Life (UK 1963), Lindsay Anderson’s classic British film in which a young miner (Richard Harris) is recruited by the owner of a professional rugby league team precisely because he demonstrates ‘spirit and aggression’ – something Soane has to learn both on the field and off it. More sporting dramas around these kinds of stories would be welcome. I’m not sure if Mercenaire will get any kind of international distribution, but I would recommend it.
Original French trailer:
Excerpt dealing with Soane’s arrival in France (with English subs):
French TV clip with a report on the whole issue of recruiting Polynesians into French rugby.
Wild doesn’t just promise to be transgressive. It delivers. But it’s transgressive in a carefully structured and composed way with a strong central performance and a coherent aesthetic approach. Technical credits all round are excellent. I’ve seen references to a host of other films and I understand why most of the references are made – but this film stands on its own. Citing the references is needed for us as readers, so we can negotiate the text.
Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is an office worker in an IT company. She’s alienated by the petty jobs she is given by her boss Boris who summons her by throwing a tennis ball at his glass office wall, behind which Ania works. She lives in a flat with her sister, who then moves out with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, her grandfather is in hospital and has gone into a coma. Ania is now seemingly ‘alone’ when she sees a wolf lurking in her local park on her journey home. She becomes obsessed with the animal and seems determined to not only capture it, but to become ‘one’ with this wild creature. It occurs to me at this point that there is a large genre repertoire of narratives that deal with alienated workers and what happens to them. Kafka’s Gregor in Metamorphosis might be one example.
Try to imagine what this obsession with the wolf might mean in reality. Believe me, writer-director Nicolette Krebitz goes further than you imagined and Lilith Stangenberg seems prepared to do virtually anything that her director requires. The wolf is played by a pair of animals named Nelson and Cossa and as far as I know no CGI was used (or at least non visibly) so the wranglers deserve enormous credit. Stangenberg is just extraordinary.
Woman – wolf – Red Riding Hood is one possible line of investigation. Rabbits as food offer a link to Polanski’s Repulsion. Is Ania losing her sanity? One of the strengths of the film is that it switches direction – so at one point Ania stalks the streets like a vampire looking for bloody meat. At other times it feels as if a kind of feminist revenge is uppermost in her mind – this fits with the growing number of female-centred horror film narratives over the past twenty years. One reviewer mentions Ginger Snaps (Canada 2000) and that sounds a good call. Ania’s only recreation prior to her fascination with the wolf appears to be on a deserted shooting range. The film certainly plays with political sub-texts, including in its use of migrant workers. Ania’s sexuality seems equally malleable and we are also asked to try to work out what is fantasy and what is ‘real’. I was certainly never bored. On the whole the film has received positive responses from film festival critics, but as many point out its transgressive nature is likely to offend the more staid end of the arthouse market. Perhaps it is destined for the smaller niche of cult cinema. That would be a shame. This isn’t in any way a ‘trashy film’ (and that term in itself doesn’t imply a film that is not worth seeing). Instead, this film intelligently explores aspects of our personalities that we usually keep under wraps. I suspect that Wild may be more disturbing to dog-lovers than to those of us who look after (domestic) felines. A wolf is both more dangerous and potentially more loyal.
Here’s a German trailer that gives less away than the English subtitled version. The film was released in Germany on 40 screens in April.
I laughed and cried all through this film. It’s a ‘feelgood film’ with an edge of dark humour based on a popular novel by Fredrik Backman that has in turn become one of the most popular Swedish films of recent times. Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, it has already taken some $1.5 million from a limited US release and with a Swedish take of over $20 million it is odd that no UK distributor appears to have bought the film yet. This is even stranger when the film’s leading actor Rolf Lassgård is already well-known in the UK as the first incarnation of Inspector Wallander in the TV films based on Henning Mankell’s novels and more recently in Sebastian Bergman (2010-2013). It would be a surprise if A Man Called Ove didn’t end up on BBC4.
Ove, at least in later life, is a universal figure (not that dissimilar from the UK sitcom character Victor Meldrew). We meet him at the point when his employers of 43 years decide to ‘let him go’ aged 59. His beloved wife Sonja died just six months ago and his officious reign as the ‘regulator’ of his small block of houses also seems to under threat. Ove has had enough and decides to end it all and join Sonja. But he hasn’t taken into account the arrival of new neighbours, a heavily pregnant Iranian woman with two small daughters and a ‘useless’ (Sewdish) husband – an ‘idiot’ as Ove terms him. So far, so predictable. Three aspects of the film take it beyond the predictable. First is the power of Lassgård and the chemistry between him and his new neighbour (and her daughters). Second is the presentation of Ove’s ‘back story’ about his childhood and hesitant romance with the ever-smiling Sonja and third is that dark edge of Swedish humour. There are moments when it is possible to recognise the world of a Roy Andersson, especially in the several suicide attempts – and sudden accidents – all presented in a matter-of-fact way.
Grumpy old men should love this film (I speak from experience), as will their partners and their children. Ove is rude and officious. He is very competent with all kinds of technology but rather lacking in emotional intelligence, though it is there for those with the know-how to release it in him. In the flashbacks we see Ove played by Viktor Baagøe as a boy and Filip Berg as a young man. Ida Engvoll plays Sonja. The back story introduces some of the reasons why Ove has grown up to be the man we see. In particular he’s clearly justified in being suspicious of ‘the men in white shirts’ and the pain that is experienced because of the incompetence of other workers. There is also an indication that Ove’s experience as a worker has imbued him with a sense of working-class solidarity and collective responsibility. It’s interesting to note that Ove collects into his band the physically disabled, those with learning difficulties, a young gay man and various migrants. He’s a role model for grumps!